- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

“Swimming Pool” begins on a deliberately blurry pictorial note: Each image during the opening credits starts slightly out of focus, sharpens into focus and then slips out of focus again before dissolving into the next set of credits and repeating the pattern. To some extent, this motif anticipates the impression of watery diffusion that results when you emerge from a swimming pool. It can be a blinding impression on the sunniest days.

The literal swimming pool that becomes a familiar but enigmatic prop in the course of the movie has a somewhat different metaphorical emphasis. The talented young French filmmaker Francois Ozon, director of “Under the Sand” and “8 Women,” associates this pool with a blank slate, linking it to the blank computer screen that confronts the protagonist, an English mystery writer named Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), when she begins to draft a new book.

The pool and the computer are at the country estate of her publisher, John Bosload (Charles Dance). He has proposed that Sarah become a houseguest during an office visit in which she appears inclined to pick a quarrel. Publisher and author reside in London. Bosload’s offer involves a change of scene: The house is secluded in the Luberon region of Provence.

It appears that the owner has also been a mind reader. Sarah accepts and inhabits a more salubrious atmosphere as soon as she arrives in France. While the pool, littered with leaves from the surrounding woods, doesn’t attract her at first, the setting proves both soothing and stimulating. She settles in and gets cracking on the latest installment of a best-selling series about a sleuth named Dorwell.

In retrospect, this expository stretch is likely to seem the most satisfying part of the movie. Mr. Ozon and Miss Rampling formed an extraordinary partnership in “Under the Sand,” in which the actress gave an exceptionally stirring and believable performance as a bereaved woman, struggling to recover from the sudden disappearance of her husband, presumably a drowning victim during a beach vacation. Solitude and intimacy were visualized with a precision and eloquence that established Mr. Ozon as some kind of new virtuoso with poetic realism and lovelorn pathos.

Their first reunion project, “Swimming Pool” lacks the heartfelt gravity of “Under the Sand.” Sarah’s dilemma supposedly begins when her working vacation is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, a young woman named Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) who identifies herself as Bosload’s daughter. The existence of this French daughter comes as a surprise, and the girl’s slovenly and hedonistic tendencies arouse Sarah’s resentment.

Her concentration scattered by the Julie intrusion, Sarah becomes more of a cranky voyeur. A number of options might work once the generational odd-couple element comes into play. There’s a variant on director Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee” implicit in the pretext, and a culture-clash comedy about a middle-aged, literary Englishwoman confronted with a promiscuous French brat. The Ozon game plan consists of strewing the plot with so many clues, teases and dubious subplots that any alternative might be a plausible explanation for the scenario of “Swimming Pool.”

One of the most plausible: Nothing concrete does transpire. We could very well be watching a prospective plot that swims across Sarah’s imagination before she leaves England. This is Mr. Ozon’s first English-language production, allowing him to ease into a second language with a script that takes place mostly in France with mostly French-speaking characters. Julie, however, sounds more stilted than colloquial from the outset, suggesting an intentional fuzziness that should not be confused with the director’s bilingual balancing act. The fact that she’s hard to swallow may be a better indication that she’s an expendable figment of Sarah’s imagination.

There are several possible “keys” to a shift from reality to speculative or even overheated fiction: the removal of a crucifix from a bedroom wall; nocturnal appearances that awaken Sarah; the spectacle of Julie and her boyfriends providing graphic sex shows; the discovery of a diary and an abandoned manuscript; the revelation that the ruins of the Marquis de Sade castle is a nearby tourist attraction; a murder mystery that recalls certain aspects of “Diabolique”; the inescapably ludicrous interlude in which Sarah flashes a grizzled caretaker.

There are times when the whole movie seems to be a joke aimed at female crime novelists, an Anglo-American phenomenon that the French may consider suspiciously unfeminine.

Anyway, there is no reason to invest a serious emotional stake in the system of mystery contrived for “Swimming Pool” because there’s a strong chance that nothing seriously alarming ever happens. Luxuriating in the atmospheric mellowness of the setting and imagery makes a lot more sense.

Maybe the film hopes to encourage rentals for unoccupied residences in Provence. It’s easy to imagine Bosload’s place as a swell hideaway, as long as it isn’t cluttered up with the competing hang-ups of Sarah and Julie.


TITLE: “Swimming Pool”

RATING: R (Frequent nudity; occasional profanity and sexual candor, including simulated intercourse; fleeting graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Francois Ozon. Screenplay by Mr. Ozon and Emmanuele Bernheim. Some sequences in French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes


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